Last weekend’s space school featured a talk from a very nice Ph.D contemporary of mine about what goes into astronaut training and the qualities needed to become an astronaut. This talk did exactly what it was supposed to — got the kids in attendance fired up the prospect of becoming involved with the space program – and was far more interactive than my talk, which was basically a dreary narrative on where in the solar system we might end up colonising if we could ever be bothered1. However, there were a couple of points where I had to physically restrain myself from heckling her since it was a rather saccharine view of astronaut training and you’re basically not allowed to be cynical when your job is to inspire kids to do science. So I’ll just talk about it here instead: these are some of the other things you need to be an astronaut, but which they don’t usually publicise because they have an image to maintain, dammit.
You need to be a citizen of a country which has a manned spaceflight program. This means the USA, or Russia, or China. The USA in particular told ESA to sod off when they asked to be involved in the Ares program, so now that the space shuttle is done ESA is going to be in a very awkward position once the ISS is decommissioned because they’ll have an astronaut corps with nowhere to go and no way to get there (unless they pay the Russians). If you look at this comedy list of British astronauts you’ll notice that nearly everyone on it was born to US parents or otherwise acquired citizenship there. The sole exceptions on that list are space tourists with a lot of money who paid the Russians to take them up (hi, Richard Garriott) and Helen Sharman. Sharman’s interesting because she wasn’t even government-funded; a private initiative paid the Soviets to send her up in a Soyuz launch so that we could say we’d launched a British person into space. While I don’t want to diminish Sharman’s achievement in any way – if anything the competition for that single seat into space was more cutthroat than for a regular astronaut berth, and getting the first Briton into space was a genuine landmark – the fact that there hasn’t been another British astronaut in the intervening 26 years basically confirms it as a pure PR exercise. So if you don’t have citizenship, you can’t get citizenship and you can’t pay the Russians to take you, I’m sorry to say you’re out of luck.
You need to have a complete lack of personal dignity. Everyone heard the story about the crazy astronaut who drove 900 miles cross country to confront a romantic rival, right? Every single newspaper and website that wrote about it also mentioned the little titbit that she’d worn adult diapers the whole way so that she wouldn’t have to make rest stops, and that astronauts do this regularly during takeoff and landing and EVAs. The part about her wearing a nappy during the drive turned out to have been made up/repeated verbatim by news sites more interested in salacious gossip than in actually reporting the story accurately (i.e. all of them), but astronauts wearing nappies in space is perfectly true. After all, it’s not like space suits have zippers and while it might take just five minutes to wriggle out of the suit in an emergency that’s not much help if you’re caught short during your delicate repair job on the Hubble space telescope. The high-tech nappies – called Maximum Absorption Garments – are unpleasant, but necessary. And this isn’t even getting into the gruesome detail of how space toilets work.
You don’t need to be able to fly an aeroplane. The pilots of spacecraft like the space shuttle are invariably really, really good fighter pilots, and this is amusing to be because as far as actually flying the damn thing is concerned their presence is almost totally unnecessary. Spacecraft are flown by computers, and basically always have been; you hear about astronauts like John Glenn who had to do re-entry manually because something went horribly wrong but those days are long gone. If the pilots have a function at all it’s as an absolute last-ditch backup in case the layers of redundancies on redundancies on redundancies in the computer system fail, and — as the Columbia/Challenger disasters proved – if something on board your spacecraft suffers catastrophic failure you’re likely not going to be coming back no matter how good a fighter pilot you are.
Of course the pilots do other things and play a crucial and necessary role in the command structure of the mission, but they don’t need to be pilots to do that (although the military training and experience with command hierarchies is handy). I particularly like the story — which is probably apocryphal, but eh — that the pilots of the first space shuttle missions felt so helpless during takeoff and re-entry that the engineers who actually took care of flying the spacecraft gave them something to do so that they’d feel wanted: pushing the button that lowered the landing gear.
You need to not end up on this thing (or your national equivalent). Actually looking up the stats it turns out that being an astronaut is safer than you might expect. Of the 528 people launched into space only twenty-two have died during missions, giving manned space flight of all kinds a mortality rate of just 4.1 percent. If you go into space the overwhelming probability is that you will come back alive! Of course 4.1% still isn’t that great when compared to certain Earthbound professions that are considered particularly lethal (fishing is the number one most dangerous job in the US, and that only kills 0.1% of the people who do it annually), and it rises further when you consider astronaut/cosmonaut deaths in training/testing, as well as anyone who was unfortunate enough to be standing next to the Soviet space program.
1. Although the three hour activity they did afterwards where they had to convince me to fund their space colony kind of made up for that.